The growth of Skateistan is a remarkable story of sport breaking down social barriers. The NGO has given thousands of young boys and girls a sense of community, access to education, and sanctuary in the midst of political turmoil.
It is a scene one might encounter on any street corner in Southern California. Dozens of teens roll along the pavement on their skateboards and practice kick flips and ollies. Casual onlookers cheer after impressive tricks, laugh, and socialize with friends. Yet, this is not a California skate park but rather a derelict neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan where longstanding political unrest and economic hardship continue to bar many young adults from social advancement.
Oliver Percovich moved to Kabul in 2007 with his aid-worker girlfriend. Percovich, a longtime skateboarder, immediately hit the streets and discovered that local children were eager to learn the sport. Over half of the population of Afghanistan is under the age of 16 but most do not have access to organized sports or proper schooling. Thus, Percovich founded Skateistan, an NGO that uses skateboarding to promote education, gender equality, and community. Boys and girls began skating with donated plywood boards on sidewalks and abandoned fountains. Now approximately 400 teenagers skate on ramps and courses donated by the Afghan Olympic Committee. Skateistan has also built the two largest indoor sports facilities in the country where children can practice tricks, attend classes, and hone leadership skills.
The most profound impact has been on young women. Percovich was surprised to discover that many girls did not attend school or have jobs. He recalled that, “all of the popular activities were seen as activities just for boys”¦I realized that skateboarding was a loophole! It was so new that nobody had a chance to say women couldn’t do it.” Many young girls are forced to beg full-time on the streets to support their families. But at the skate park, girls from different ethnic and economic backgrounds enjoy the sport together. The sight of a young girl ‘dropping in’ on a skateboard commands respect from male peers and gives her a sense of pride. In fact, where 5% of all skateboarders around the world are girls, 40% of Afghan skateboarders are women. For Percovich, these daily scenes are brief glimpses of what Afghanistan could be.
Skateistan provides a sense of community in a historically divided city. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the children share a love of skateboarding. This sense of community was evident after four skateboarders were killed in a suicide bombing in September 2012. Hundreds of young skateboarders donated food, firewood, and clothing to the grieving families and even dug the graves of the deceased. These young leaders are at the heart of Skateistan. They are in constant dialogue with the local staff to determine the needs of the local community. The teenagers largely determine which donations should be used for courses, sporting equipment, and facilities. Wealthy patrons often have good intentions in sending aid to impoverished countries yet the funds rarely reach the intended groups. At Skateistan, youths drive decision-making and preserve the burgeoning identity of the organization.
The growth of Skateistan is a remarkable story of sport breaking down social barriers. The NGO has given thousands of young boys and girls a sense of community, access to education, and sanctuary in the midst of political turmoil. It is also the realization of one man’s dream. Oliver Percovich often questioned his sanity when he started Skateistan but seeing the young girls’ joy during impromptu skateboard sessions sustained his vision. Looking back, Percovich stresses that the “key was not skateboarding but rather the power of sharing something you love.” Skateistan reminds us that even a piece of wood and four wheels can bring people together in unexpected and profound ways.
For more information on Skateistan, visit:https://www.skateistan.org/